Returning to one’s home after a long time away can feel like jumping into cold water. Alie Renee, the singer-songwriter behind the music project Byland, had been away from Albuquerque, New Mexico for ten years. In that time, she went to school for music in Seattle, got married, started a band, and wrote and self-released an album about her childhood, 2018’s Desert Days. Earlier this year, in the midst of completing its follow-up, GRAY (out October 2nd, 2020) Byland was called home to Albuquerque and put finishing touches on her first in-studio effort from a distance; though the album wasn’t made with home in mind, its themes point to a homecoming of sorts, exploring the layers we shed when we start getting to the root of our problems.
Premiering on Audiofemme, “Believe” is the second single to be released from GRAY. “Iʼm afraid to look at my phone tonight/Will I be defined by what I find?/Itʼs not that Iʼm afraid to be in the light/But are you someone I can hide behind?” Alie sings in a gentle meditation. A steady drumbeat accompanies the recurring thought “If you believe in me/Maybe I won’t have to,” a taunt directed inward at her own insecurities. It’s a spiritual companion to her recent release “Mine” from the same album, full of similar wall-of-sound techniques, cinematic surges and delicate crescendos. Both songs build on the desert landscapes Byland painted on Desert Days: scenes of long, straight highways leading out into the desert; a preacher taking a smoke break on the steps of an empty church; a woman walking with a sense of purpose, her eyes set on a western sun.
“Believe” is laden with both self-doubt and reassurance. Alie wrote the song in the moment and had to reflect on the lyrics after the fact; suddenly she could see clear undercurrents pointing to her upbringing, and the youthful uncertainties she still carries. “There were things that I never gave credit to, like my own sense of direction. I didn’t trust myself and I didn’t believe myself because there was always something external that was more powerful than me,” she says. The song’s echoed refrain and stark vulnerability brings home the singer’s realization “that I have value, my thoughts have value, my emotions and feelings are valid.”
Albuquerque is known for its diverse landscape. Alie spent her first decade of life in the mountains outside the city, homeschooled by her parents, who owned their own sign-making business. She took piano lessons with money her mother had squirreled away from the family’s budget. “My first teacher was amazing,” Alie says with a smile. “I remember my first lesson – she had me sit down, be in my body, and figure out how I was feeling right then, and to find one note on the piano that matched that emotion. That was how I was introduced to the piano.”
When she was 10, her family moved to the inner city; her father was a pastor and wanted to minister to those at risk. “He ended up buying almost a whole block and remodeling [the buildings] for recovering alcoholics and single mothers,” Alie remembers. “So I grew up with at least 30-40 people in my community at all times.” She recalls the beautiful parts of that time period: there was crime in the neighborhood, but there was also a sweet lady who took tamales door-to-door. It was a close knit community, the kind a wide-eyed country girl could draw from, paint from memory in her head.
Though her family could no longer afford Alie’s piano lessons, she started performing with her worship team at church. It was there that she first learned how to get comfortable in front of a crowd, to play from her heart, and really felt a calling to become a musician. Her Evangelical family was pretty strict with what kinds of music she could practice. Secular music was verboten (Johnny Cash and a few folk artists were okay, leftover from her dad’s hippie days). “I feel like my music exposure was pretty streamlined,” she says with a laugh, recalling her early idols: Christian singers Rebecca St. James and Jennifer Knapp. In high school, she felt invigorated by her discovery of Brandi Carlile and fell in love with the singer’s alto voice and confessional style of writing.
Byland started in Seattle, after Alie graduated from college (“It was like an art college/bible college mix,” she explains of the environment). She and her husband Jake met at the school and started writing music together – the project takes its moniker from the couple’s married surname. Jake would interview Alie about stories from her childhood in Albuquerque and translate them into lyrics; Alie took his words and found melodies to string them together. The first album was written and produced in a small in-home studio as a kind of conversation between them, the easy back and forth of newlyweds getting to know each other. The band was always a collaborative effort, with Alie pulling in different local musicians for each live performance.
“The one thing that really changed between our first record and this one is going to therapy. I, in general, was spending a lot more time actually feeling emotions and not just pushing them away,” she confesses. “I was thankful to have the space to be able to explore those things. I realized how thankful I was for music and for artistic expression, to be able to give a voice to things that are hard to explain or communicate. It was a very healing process to write songs about what I was going through.”
The recording process was very different, too. This time, Alie took the lead on most of the lyrics, though she notes that Jake wrote the entirety of “Maybe” himself. Collaborators were pulled in right from the start. Jessica Dobson, lead singer of Deep Sea Diver, came on for one single; at the time they were recording GRAY, Dobson was also Alie’s electric guitar teacher. It was Dobson that suggested Alie write her own guitar solo and learn how to play it, something she’s been working toward ever since. Musicians Meagan Grandall and Abby Gunderson are also featured on the record. “It’s cool working with other women who are self-made and going for it,” Alie said of the experience. Notably, she also partnered with producer Nathan Yaccino, who’s engineered albums by Tanya Tucker, Soundgarden, and worked on a song with none other than Brandi Carlile. With Byland’s relocation to Albuquerque, followed shortly after by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, final touches on the record were done long-distance, Alie working from home with husband Jake and their new puppy Posie nearby.
“It feels like I’ve been on a journey,” Alie says, thinking back on the last ten years and the album coming out this fall. “I used to have all the answers for everything and now I have less answers than ever.”
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